The specter of The Exorcist looms large over modern horror filmmakers. William Friedkin’s tale of demonic possession wasn’t so much released in 1973 as it was unleashed on an unsuspecting audience who to that point had largely thought of horror movies as B-grade double bill fillers. Along with Rosemary’s Baby and Don’t Look Now, it was one of the earliest examples of what’s now called “elevated horror” – i.e. scary movies made with the utmost seriousness. Yet what truly set The Exorcist apart was how terrifying it really was. Using the very best makeup and special effects available, Friedkin showed viewers sights previously thought impossible – spinning heads, pea green vomit, vibrating beds – to make you believe that a young girl had been possessed by the devil. Its nightmarish images sent audiences racing for the exits. Stories of fainting in the aisles only added to its mystique. Actual evil seemed to exist within its frames. It was as though Friedkin had tapped into our deepest, darkest fears and spewed them, raw and quivering, onto the screen.
Fifty years have passed, and Friedkin has died, yet his film continues to startle and unnerve us. Its fingerprints are unmistakably on every horror movie that’s been released since, each seeking to up the gross-out ante Friedkin had set. Even more alluring is the hope of making a film that could be considered something more than just a frightfest; something that could reach the critically lauded heights of art. Today’s horror movies have gotten so self-serious that even the Saw franchise needed not one, but two gritty reboots to get audiences interested again.
It’s in this environment that the good people at Blumhouse – that most reliable of major horror studios – has decided to release its new legacy sequel, The Exorcist: Believer. This isn’t the first time someone has tried to make a sequel (or for that matter a prequel) to the film, and since this is the first of a planned trilogy, we already know it won’t be the last. God help us.
The film opens in the Dominican Republic, where Victor Fielding (Leslie Odom Jr.) is on vacation with his very pregnant wife. Tragedy strikes and Victor returns home to Georgia as a single dad. His daughter, Angela (Lidya Jewett), has just turned 13, and as in the original, there’s a lot to be said about the metaphor of burgeoning female sexuality (you’ll never guess where a spot of blood appears at one point). Her best friend, Katherine (Olivia O’Neill), has a pair of very religious parents (Jennifer Nettles and Norbert Leo Butz), and one day after school the two go into the woods to try and summon the spirit of Angela’s dead mother. The girls go missing, and return three days later possessed with something more than the holy spirit. As one does when they wander into the woods.
The first half hour or so is surprisingly effective, as director David Gordon Green has a natural talent for observing everyday people in environments that feel authentic and real. He also builds suspense the old fashioned way, easing us into the natural rhythms of his characters lives before slowly unsettling them. For a second, I thought Green had perhaps done the impossible and made a good Exorcist sequel; turns out that was only the devil playing tricks on me.
Victor’s neighbor, Ann (Ann Dowd), is a nurse at the hospital where his daughter is being treated for her increasingly disturbing behavior. Turns out Ann almost became a nun before falling from grace, and once read a book written by Chris MacNeill (Ellen Burstyn), whose daughter, Regan (Linda Blair), went through a similarly devilish ordeal. Victor tracks Chris down and drags her back into action, just as Green has dragged Burstyn kicking and screaming back into the Exorcist franchise. It can be said that Burstyn has never given a bad performance, which remains true even as she seems to be asking herself what she’s doing in this movie.
Burstyn isn’t the only callback to the original. Basically every big scare and special effect from the first Exorcist is repurposed here, to the point where I kept remembering just how effective Friedkin’s direction was in comparison. Like that film, Believer comes down to a bout with the devil for a young girl’s soul (or in this case two). Whereas Regan’s exorcism was performed by a pair of Catholic priests, Angela and Katherine’s is carried out by a wide variety of holy men and women, with a Baptist minister and a voodoo witch doctor thrown in to remind viewers this one takes place in the South. Considering the film has a great many things to say about the importance of faith, it’s surprising how nondescript the religious figures are, aside from Dowd, who dusts off her catechism training when another priest gets cold feet. (It’s especially stunning considering Green and his co-writer, Danny McBride, are behind HBO’s very funny The Righteous Gemstones, which examines religion in surprisingly nuanced ways.)
Among the great qualities of The Exorcist were the performances by Jason Miller and Max Von Sydow as Father Karras and Father Merrin. Karras, riddled with guilt over the death of his mother, found exorcisms to be nothing more than medieval barbarism, and needed to be convinced otherwise. Merrin, much older and afflicted with heart disease, had previously done battle with the devil, and thought his exorcism days were behind him. The spiritual battle these two men faced felt real and pronounced, and it played out to devastating effect during the film’s harrowing final act. It added real stakes to the fight for Regan’s soul. In Believer, the only distinction between each holy person is the garb their respective faith requires them to wear.
I suppose now is the time to say that Believer is made with real craft, and there were times when I did almost leap out of my seat at a jump scare. The same was true of Green’s previous legacy sequel, Halloween, which, like this one, was the first of a trilogy that sought to reframe the original within the confines of modern day elevated horror standards (if Halloween Kills and Halloween Ends are any indication, the law of diminishing returns will apply here). But good craft will only get you so far. Green is a very talented director. Why is he wasting his time reheating other filmmakers’ leftovers, when directors like Jordan Peele, Ari Aster, and Ti West are taking the horror genre in exciting new directions with bold, original visions? Like his Halloween revamp, what purpose does this film have to exist other than to remind us of a much better one? Perhaps he believes he’s paying tribute to his heroes (or, in the case of John Carpenter, paying residuals).
When Friedkin died earlier this year, there was an outpouring of tributes by critics and his fellow directors, most of them focused on his back-to-back triumphs The French Connection and The Exorcist. Like many of the New Hollywood mavericks of the 1970s, Friedkin struggled to find his footing in the blockbuster-centric 80s and 90s. Although he still made some great films during this time, he made his fair share of stinkers, for-hire jobs that were beneath his talent (remember The Guardian?). Yet he came roaring back in his 70s with Bug and Killer Joe, two small, gritty thrillers that were reminiscent of his best work. His final film, The Caine Mutiny Court-Martial, is a fitting swan song.
Far be it from me to offer Green career advice. I’m sure he’s enjoying all of the perks that come with being a big studio director. It certainly beats scraping together funds to make indie marvels like George Washington, All the Real Girls, or Stronger. But if Green really is paying tribute to his heroes, I hope he takes a page from the end of Friedkin’s career, when he had freed himself from the shackles of Hollywood success and returned to what he did best. Perhaps then, Green can make a film that will be remembered 50 years from now, instead of just a pale imitation of one.
Universal Pictures will release The Exorcist: Believer only in theaters on October 6.
Photo: Eli Joshua Adé / Universal Pictures